An outdated alliance?

Germany's chancellor, amid U.S.-European tensions over how to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons, calls for an overhaul of NATO.

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Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, Sunday backed calls by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for a revamp of NATO. At a high-level security conference in Munich on Saturday, the chancellor called on the United States and the European Union to set up an international independent panel to consider the future of NATO. The organization, he said, was “no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies.” He added: “The same applies to the dialogue between the European Union and the United States, which in its current form does justice neither to the union’s growing importance nor to the new demands on transatlantic cooperation.”

Schroeder’s speech was read by the German defense minister, Peter Struck, as the chancellor was ill with flu. Fischer said Sunday: “Schroeder wants the opposite of a weaker NATO. He wants to draft a grand design, a new strategic consensus across the Atlantic.”

Schroeder’s provocative proposal comes nine days before a NATO summit to be attended by George W. Bush, and follows what was billed as a conciliatory tour of Europe by new U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in a conciliatory mood and ignored Schroeder’s suggestions. “NATO has a great deal of energy and vitality,” he said. Rumsfeld sought to end his feud with France and Germany by joking that his “old Europe” characterization “was old Rumsfeld.” “While there have been differences over Iraq, such issues among longtime friends are not new,” Rumsfeld said. “But we have always been able to resolve the toughest issues.”

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But tensions between the U.S. and Europe over the conduct of the war on terror — in particular, how to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons — were obvious during the annual conference. Fischer urged America Sunday to embrace the E.U.’s diplomatic efforts to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons. “If the United States were to engage positively, and I’m aware of how difficult that is, it would substantially strengthen the European drive,” he said. “If the whole process collapsed, then we would have to go to the [U.N.] Security Council.”

But Fischer suggested that sanctions could strengthen hard-line elements in the Iranian government and weaken democrats. “Iran is not Saddam Hussein,” he said. “We have there a contradictory mixture of very dark elements and democratic elements.” But his appeal appeared to fall on deaf ears. Members of the U.S. Congress attending the conference, notably Republican Sen. John McCain, who called Iran a “long-standing sponsor of international terrorism,” said they had little faith in the E.U.’s diplomacy.

Gholamali Khoshroo, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said his country has no interest in an arms race. Unlike Israel, which has nuclear weapons, he said, Iran had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi reiterated warnings that the United States should not contemplate attacking Iran. “During the talks with the Europeans, we told them in clear terms to tell their American allies not to play with fire, and the Europeans clearly got our message,” the Associated Press reported Asefi as saying.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the conference NATO could even help enforce a Middle East peace deal. De Hoop Scheffer has visited Jordan and is having talks with the Israeli government this month.

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